man with jaw pain holding jaw.

Jaw pain and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder are both conditions which we see frequently in the acupuncture clinic. Fortunately, acupuncture is an effective TMJ treatment which can help to relieve pain and inflammation while soothing underlying problems such as stress.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common jaw pain causes from the viewpoints of western and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and explore how acupuncture can help.

Do I Have TMJ Disorder?

There are many different causes of jaw pain, and getting the right diagnosis is key. TMJ disorder is just one type of jaw pain and it affects the joint between the jaw and the skull. The most common symptoms of TMJ disorder include:

  • Pain in your jaw, ear, or temple
  • Pain that is worse when you use your jaw
  • Difficulty opening your mouth fully
  • Popping, clicking, or grinding when you use your jaw
  • Your jaw locking when you use it
  • Headaches, especially around your temples

If you are experiencing the above symptoms, you may well be suffering from TMJ disorder. Read on to find out more about the causes of TMJ and the best treatments for you.

Jaw Pain Causes: A Western View

TMJ disorder is a common cause of jaw pain. It can develop for a number of reasons including:

  • Teeth grinding (also known as bruxism)
  • An overbite or underbite
  • Injury
  • Wear and tear
  • Emotional stress

All of the above can lead to inflammation in the jaw which causes pain, swelling, and stiffness along with the other symptoms of TMJ disorder.

However, there are many other possible jaw pain causes apart from TMJ disorder. It can be a result of dental problems, nerve problems, and conditions like arthritis. You may also suffer from jaw pain if you have a chronic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, or lupus.

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Jaw Pain Causes: A Chinese Medicine View

The causes of jaw pain in TCM are very similar to those in western medicine. However, according to acupuncture theory, jaw pain results from a blockage in qi and blood flow rather than inflammation.

Qi and blood are two of the most essential substances in TCM. They circulate around the body proving warmth, nourishment, and protection. In order to do this effectively, they need a pathway which is clear and free from obstructions.

When a particular area of the body is injured, either by a sudden trauma or gradual wear and tear, the channels in which qi and blood flow begin to change shape. This makes it more difficult for these vital substances to move through them and leads to bottlenecks and blockages.

Like a river that is being blocked up by a dam, qi and blood begin to collect behind the barrier. This leads to a condition known as stagnation. The symptoms of stagnation in TCM are very similar to those of inflammation in western medicine: swelling, stiffness, and pain.

Stagnation can also be caused by emotional stress which causes the muscles to tighten and prevents qi and blood from passing through.

How to Treat TMJ Disorder

The most common conventional TMJ treatments include painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids. These drugs can provide some short-term relief, but they also carry the risk of side effects. Another problem with these medications is that are something of a quick fix and do nothing to treat the underlying causes of jaw pain.

This is why it is so important to know the specific cause of your jaw pain. If you have a dental issue, your jaw pain will not improve until you get the correct treatment. That might include root canal treatment, fillings, or extractions. You may also need antibiotics if you have an infection in your jaw.

If you grind your teeth, your dentist can provide you with a special mouthguard. You can wear this at night to protect your jaw while you sleep, a time when you could very likely be grinding your teeth without knowing.

Once you have identified the exact cause of your jaw pain, you could try TMJ treatments such as heat or ice packs, physical therapy, stretching, massage, or acupuncture. All of these therapies can help to relieve jaw pain effectively and safely.

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Acupuncture for Jaw Pain and TMJ Disorder

Acupuncture benefits jaw pain and TMJ disorder in several ways. From a TCM perspective, the needles used in acupuncture work to remove local stagnation and improve the circulation of qi and blood. This in turn relieves jaw pain and other symptoms such as stiffness and locking.

From a western medicine perspective, acupuncture can offer jaw pain relief through the following mechanisms:

  • Relieving inflammation
  • Altering the way that pain signals are transmitted through the nervous system
  • Releasing natural, painkilling chemicals known as endorphins
  • Improving blood flow to promote healing

Acupuncture is also an extremely relaxing treatment. Therefore, if you suffer from stress, it can help you to unwind at the end of a busy day. When your mind relaxes, so does your body, allowing problems such as jaw clenching to simply melt away.

How to Prevent Jaw Pain and TMJ Disorder

Although acupuncture can offer some relief from jaw pain and TMJ disorder, prevention is always better than cure. Here are some tips for keeping your TMJ healthy and avoiding jaw pain:

Visit the Dentist Regularly

Jaw pain is often caused by poor dental health, so visit your dentist regularly, even if your teeth feel fine. Frequent dental check-ups are one of the best ways to nip problems in the bud and prevent them from developing into full-blown TMJ disorder.

Wear a Mouthguard

If you grind your teeth, wearing a mouthguard can help to prevent jaw pain. Signs of teeth grinding include facial pain, headaches, worn down or sensitive teeth, and bad sleep for you or your partner. Teeth grinding often happens at night, so ask your dentist to check for signs if you are unsure.

Eat Soft Foods

Eating soft foods means that your jaw does not have to work as hard when you chew. In turn, this can reduce your likelihood of developing jaw pain or TMJ disorder. Some of the worst foods for your jaw include apples, bagels, and chewy candy. Try swapping these for bananas, tortilla wraps, and fruit jellies, for example.

Don’t Bite Your Nails

Biting your nails is a bad habit for many reasons, and jaw pain is one of them. To avoid temptation, keep your nails short, wear nail polish, or treat yourself to an expensive manicure that you won’t want to ruin.

Learn to Relax

Stress causes your jaw muscles to become tight and tense, and for some people it can trigger nail biting too. Try relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga to help you stay calm under pressure. If you suffer from chronic stress, depression, or anxiety, consider talking therapy to help you work through your issues.

Be Aware of Your Jaw

Simple, everyday actions such as resting your chin on your hand or yawning too wide can all have a negative impact on your jaw. Try to become more aware of your jaw movements and avoid putting extra strain on this delicate joint. You could even ask a friend to tell you if they catch you slipping into bad habits!


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